Smartphones for Smart Policy: Mobilizing the Social Sciences to Fight Global Poverty

Many development projects fail to help the poor in Africa, and better data remains a policy concern. Mobile innovations can facilitate data collection and research in the social sciences to better understand and fight poverty. Mobile surveys can help researchers and policy makers gain regular and accurate information that better represents the perspective of the poor, although they cannot be a silver bullet. Scientists may be further empowered by technology to perform scientific data analytics on their phones or via virtual interfaces in the future, which may open new frontiers and make science more inclusive over time.

*This research was funded by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. IIS-1054332.


Most international development projects aimed at fighting global poverty still fail to succeed in host communities in Africa, limiting the effectiveness of anti-poverty policies (1). Although an increasing number of development programs are rigorously evaluated to quantify their impacts (2), one reason why so many projects flop in developing countries may be that policy making in many African countries is usually based on low-quality and irregularly-collected data (3). A related reason may be that voices from the developing regions in question are only rarely represented in the initiatives that are designed to help them.

A recognition that mobile technological innovations have a major role to play in the fight against poverty is gaining ground. One definitive factor has been the rise of mobile access in Africa (4). Whereas international development has historically been dominated by international, governmental and non-governmental actors, a newer phenomenon occurring in the wake of high economic growth in Africa is the arrival of and technology companies and venture capitalists into the development space to financially support entrepreneurs. When the human capital to foster such upstarts are not yet feasible, innovative partnerships are often being fostered using incubators and hubs. Examples include the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology and Incubator Program, which offers intensive full-time programs to nurture entrepreneurs in West Africa; the Kenyan iHub that provides an open space for entrepreneurs in East and Central Africa, and the Jozi Hub that serves South and Southern Africa and others (5). Nearly simultaneously, various institutions are creating newer open data initiatives to help policy makers serve their citizens. There is real potential for social science research and policy to benefit significantly from all of these developments.

In this article, I discuss recent progress in the emergent mobile technology for international development space and argue that global policy making can be made more inclusive if such tools are brought to the center of policy decision-making. I argue that mobile innovations can help both research and policy making can make significant strides towards incorporating the voice of the poor and marginalized in pursuing development. Mobile platforms offer the potential to support economic development programs and initiatives to succeed in developing countries by engaging citizens in new and exciting ways.

Mobilizing Social Science and Policy Making

Mobile technologies allow social scientists to answer more ambitious questions than ever before for the benefit of policy makers. Three avenues that may benefit significantly from mobile technologies are data quality, national-level and international-level impact evaluations, ethnographies and interdisciplinary methods. Mobile innovations such as mobile phone-based surveys also provide unique channels for public policy feedback, and international policy in general.

Improving Data Quality for the Social Sciences. Experimental and quasi-experimental program evaluations have revolutionized economics research, inspired by medical and scientific research on testing new innovations (6). As a result, economists, social and political scientists have done much work evaluating programs in areas such as health, education, finance, technologies, politics and others. Much of this research, however, has relied on expensive paper-based surveys that are difficult to implement. While an increasing number of research initiatives use smartphones and tablets to collect data, the vast majority of development data is still of very costly to collect, which in turn, affect the quantity of statistics that are regularly generated.

Survey Impact Evaluations. Following in an old tradition of using survey experiments to study case and effect (7), online survey tools are increasingly being used in the social sciences to understand impact evaluations of policies (8). Newer mobile-based methods such as surveys potentially provide a cost-effective way to implement surveys while providing statistical representativeness that render them tractable to data collection (9) and understanding the policy preferences in Africa. Although mobile surveys must be understood to pose dilemmas for international policy makers from their proximity to mobile phones and the blood electronics phenomenon (10), mobile surveys have the potential to succeed online survey platforms for at least two reasons. First, impact evaluations at the national and international levels have been nearly impossible to implement due to the significant cost and practical shortcomings of typically-used survey instruments. Mobile surveys could relatively easily cover significant portions of countries for nationally-representative and cross-country comparisons to give policy makers a significantly development work deeper view of policies and their potentials. Second, the responses could be fed into the policy making process itself, to yield context for policy plans and provide feedback on various initiatives that are planned to mitigate poverty. Such approaches may greatly lower the chance of projects failing on implementation.

Large-Scale Ethnographies. The benefits of mobile surveys are not limited to quantitative research. Social scientists need qualitative research to understand program evaluations (11) and mobile surveys may help provide such elements. Since mobile surveys can be paused and completed at any time, they provide the potential for detailed qualitative research that would simply be impossible via the standard in-person semi-structured interviews and ethnographies researchers rely on. These would allow organizations to collect large-scale qualitative in-depth data on the lived experiences over time. These approaches may also bring individual persons closer to the organizations that serve them in terms of public policies.

Mixed Methods. To improve the collective impacts of social science among the economically vulnerable, it will be important for different fields to collaborate to better inform policy action. One main challenge of bridging quantitative and qualitative methods has been that collecting rich qualitative data is usually only possible for small sample sizes, whereas compiling large quantitative datasets may comes at the expense of qualitative depth. By being able to collect both quantitative and qualitative data at scale, mobile surveys may reduce this trade-off over time. Such an outcome may encourage social scientists to learn from one another and gain the most benefits from mobile-based data.

Policy Channels. Mobile surveys provide the opportunity for citizen feedback to be fed into policy channels. They also provide the opportunity to automate various aspects of policy making, such as providing voice bites of policy results to channel findings to citizens in developing countries who may never have access to a policy report.

All of these innovations also raise newer questions for international development that have implications on how international development is taught to the next generation of policy makers.

Poverty, Technology and Development in the Classroom

We are beginning to see significant impacts of technology on economies, polities, societies, and cultures in Africa and the developing world. Simultaneously, scholars and policy makers are also realizing that unprecedented technological innovations are redefining what poverty and development means for poverty and inequality in the United States and other developed countries (12, 13). Technology is, therefore, redefining poverty and development within and across developed-developing realities.

The author of this article created and taught a new participatory seminar called “Poverty, Technology and Development” in 2014 to help introduce students to these approaches and issues. Students were exposed the discussions across the social sciences on the role of technological innovations in social development around the world. In addition to standard impact evaluations used in development, students also learned to use VOTO Mobile, a mobile survey platform based in Ghana.

Students were exposed to standard impact evaluations as well as how to use mobile surveys for such research. These engagements are needed to help the next generation of policy makers understand how include the voices of the poor in new and mutually beneficial ways. As students graduate to join policy and other development initiatives, local perspectives may be gained from the field through mobile surveys to help such organizations become more effective.

The increasing number of technology start-up ventures that focus on international development will need to incorporate the voices of the poor in their programs. At the same time, raising the scope of accountability in both research and policy practice is important. Although sharing information in channels beyond academic journals and scholarly books remain critical for communicating research results, inclusive and innovative approaches of engaging citizens will be important for the policies to be sustainable and to encourage citizens around the world to engage. Policy makers are already using mobile programs to engage people around the world in such ways. For instance, there have been discussions for the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals to depend on crowdsourced feedback using mobile technologies (14).

Further work is needed for mobile innovations to contribute to broader economic change. For example, it is not clear how to link technology-led development initiatives with structural economic problems such as manufacturing gaps which persist in the vast majority of developing countries. Empowering locally-led initiatives to participate in the global economy at higher levels of various value chains—through education, investment and merging formal and informal sectors—will be a priority. Less still is known about how to keep the global citizenry safe as more and more information is collected—or how to protect organizations that must interact with an increasingly hyper-aware global citizenry. Innovations that are increasingly pre-emptive from a social perspective will be needed to protect the livelihoods of people who are socioeconomically vulnerable.

The Need for Non-Superficial Conversations on Privacy and Development

Perhaps, the most obvious concern raised towards using mobile innovations to foster development relate to the importance of privacy. Some are worried that collecting much information from people in developing countries will necessarily compromise their comfort and even security. Fortunately, one of the rare advantages of being a developing region and having limited infrastructure is that it may be relatively easier to institute safeguards from scratch than to adjust existing institutions. For example, Ghana passed a comprehensive bill establishing user’s rights of data access, control and use consent (15). Privacy-focused institutions and arrangements must be supported to evolve technologically even as innovations open new avenues for research and global policy. The purpose of technological development tools are not to supersede privacy concerns but to encourage stakeholders to redefine them to suit changing environments and social norms. The encouraging trends towards open data services by governmental and non-governmental groups will have a significant role to play as will research in the computer sciences to protect citizen identities. A sense of balance will be critical while pursuing smartphone sensing and converting basic sensor data into novel sorts of variables including measures of sociability and physical activity which are already being pursued in psychology research (16, 17).

Given the potential for superior information to substantially improve anti-poverty policies, such concerns might ultimately strengthen the benefits that technological development will provide, although this remains an empirical question. Although many appropriately worry that technological innovations may strictly worsen inequality through limiting employment and access to resources, an interesting paradox of technologies is that these same tools—with the help of the social sciences and humanities—are uniquely placed to mitigate such issues.

Towards New Dialogues

Scientists may be empowered by technology to perform scientific data analytics on their phones in the near future, which may open new frontiers, such as real-time randomized controlled trials (18). Furthermore, most social scientists have little engagement with study participants beyond the design of an experimental or ethnographic study. Real-time data, coupled with powerful statistical software that allows for data collection and analysis on smartphones or via virtual interfaces in real-time may reduce such barriers over time. Issues of privacy and transparency will only grow in prominence as far as development research is concerned, although such policy making and engineering would go a long way to make science processes more inclusive within developed countries as well.


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